Do I Cry More Than Normal People?

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Photo: Mikolette/Getty Images

Dear Mona,

I am a grown-up cry baby. I cry at movies and television shows, sure, but I also cry at commercials and viral videos of adorable baby animals. I cry when I’m overly happy, sad, or mad; I also cry when I can tell other people are overly happy, sad, or mad.

I’m not depressed; I just have a lot of feelings. And I feel like the frequency at which I cry is maybe not normal. Do you have any data on how frequently the average person cries?

Thanks,
M., age 31

Dear M.,

I cry all the time. But, technically, so does everyone else: Lacrimation — that is, tear secretion — keeps the surface of your eyes wet and fends off bacteria and, unless there’s something wrong with us, we produce those tears constantly. But I’m guessing you’re not interested in those tears — or the reflex tears that happen when you yawn or vomit, or when your eyeball gets in the way of a small flying insect. You’re more interested in emotional tears — which is good, because that’s way more interesting. Data show that how often you weep varies hugely by a person’s age — which is not so surprising — but also by their gender and even the country they live in.

Humans are the only mammals to produce emotional tears, and we start early. But not as early as you might think — until we’re three to four months old, our wails are tearless, which means they’re similar to the sounds produced by other young animals trying to capture mama’s attention. Later on, though, producing tears becomes an essential component of emotional crying. Looking at lifespan trends in crying, Jonathan Rottenberg (based at the University of South Florida) and Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets (at Tilburg University in the Netherlands) note “adults oftentimes do the exact opposite of newborns – and secrete silent tears.” The psychologists were unsure as to why this change takes place, but they have a couple of theories. We might have evolved to cry noiselessly so as not to attract the attention of predators or “hostile human conspecifics”; I am guessing this means people like your boss. Or it might just be that once we’re no longer confined to a crib, we only need the visual component of crying to attract other people’s attention — we can just walk on over and show off our teary face.

Either way, the best data we have for defining “normal” crying does come from babies. We know, thanks to Rottenberg and Vingerhoets, that from the time we’re born, crying frequency gradually increases and peaks at 6 weeks old. From there, it decreases until we’re 4 months old, before holding pretty much constant for the rest of our first year. Finally, our crying frequency drops off a cliff after we’re 2. If you want actual numbers on this, a 2014 study in Mexico is helpful. The authors followed 204 mothers and their infants from birth to 24 weeks and found that by the time they were 6 weeks old, the average baby cried 30 times per day, with each teary episode lasting 3.2 minutes. (In case you were wondering — I’m sure you were — the typical baby cry happens near the note A below middle C.)

The authors of that study didn’t look at whether those numbers were affected by sex. They probably didn’t bother, because several studies have found that there’s no gender gap in crying frequency until the age of 12. In adults though, it’s a whole other story.

In 1983, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota named William H. Frey tracked “emotional and irritant crying episodes over 30 days” and found that women cried an average of 5.3 times a month; men, 1.4 times a month. Those numbers now appear in almost every article to treat the subject of tears, but they should be treated with a little caution. Frey’s analysis was based on 286 females and 45 males who kept records over the 30 days, as well as another 201 females and 124 males who were asked to estimate their crying frequency. That’s not all that many people.

But there’s good reason to believe Frey’s overall finding all the same. For one thing, societies across the globe have vastly different expectations of men and women — emotionally, intellectually, and physically speaking — so perhaps it makes sense that these gender differences appear as kids become aware of them. A 2002 study of 481 teenagers found that the gender gap in crying grows as kids age because boys start to cry less, not because girls cry more. The authors were also, incidentally, able to rule out periods as a possible explanation for the gap. If you’re a woman, M., there might be a silver lining here: These researchers concluded that girls cry more because they have better empathy.

Later research has reached a similar conclusion to Frey’s. In 2002, a study by Marleen C. Becht and Vingerhoets looked at emotional crying frequencies in 31 countries and found that in every single one, women reported crying more than men. On average, women estimated that they cried 2.7 times per month while men said they wept just once. (Those findings were based on 2,323 women and 1,680 men who took part in the study.)

The variations by country will no doubt be of interest to you, too, M. It turns out men in the U.S. and in Nepal are the biggest criers of any country looked at, welling up 1.9 times per month on average. At the other extreme are men in China, who report crying 0.4 times a month, and men in Bulgaria who say they do so just 0.3 times. Women in China are also not big criers when compared to women elsewhere — they, as well as women in Nigeria, report crying just 1.4 times per month.

In 2011, Vingerhoets along with two other authors returned to the issue of cultural crying to see why these numbers vary so much from place to place. Their study concluded that crying frequency depends on perceptions more than material circumstances, or, as the authors put it, crying differences are “connected with country differences in expressiveness and personality rather than in distress." They found that people living in affluent, democratic, and individualistic countries tend to cry more often — maybe that explains your tears, M.

With so many people taking part in the original study, though, the authors were able to include a really important mathematical measure: the standard deviation. Unlike averages, which lump all of the available data points together, the standard deviation gives you a better idea of what’s normal within upper and lower bounds — it measures how spread out the data points are. Of the 31 countries studied, the standard deviation for men was 1.7 and for women it was 2.5. Those numbers mean that you could cry a lot more, or a lot less, than the average crying frequencies presented here and you’d still be statistically normal.

Beyond these numbers though, I can’t tell you what’s normal. Crying isn’t just biological and cultural, it’s deeply personal, and only you know what’s normal for you.

Hope the numbers help,
Mona

Mona Chalabi is data editor at The Guardian U.S. You can send her questions for her “Dear Mona” column at mona@monachalabi.com or on Twitter @MonaChalabi.